How the iPhone is killing the 'Net

Oxford professor argues in new book that shift from PCs to appliances, appalling cybersecurity will slow innovation

Zittrain also writes favorably about the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet's premier standards body, which focuses on rough consensus and running code. Zittrain likes that the IETF favors better "community ethics and policing'' in light of security breaches, rather than locked down appliances.

"Wikipedia shows us that the naivety of the Internet's engineers in building generative network technology can be justified not just at the technical layer of the Internet, but at the content layer as well,'' Zittrain says ."The idiosyncratic system that has produced running code among talented (and some not-so-talented) engineers has been replicated among writers and artists.''

How to preserve the 'Net's strengths

Zittrain explores several ways for the Internet to keep its generative features while also improving its stability. One of these ideas is virtual machines, which would allow end users to segregate data that needs to be kept secure in one virtual machine while keeping another virtual machine open to innovation. Another idea is tool kits that allow end users to volunteer their PCs to help detect and patch vulnerabilities. These tool kits would allow Internet users to work together to improve cybersecurity.

"It is easy for Internet users to see themselves only as consumers whose participation is limited to purchasing decisions that together add up to a market force pushing one way or another,'' he writes. "But with the right tools, users can also see themselves as participants in the shaping of generative space -- as netizens.''

Zittrain acknowledges that tethered appliances and Web 2.0 sites are here to stay. In order to maintain a balance between locked-down endpoints and the generative PCs that he favors, Zittrain recommends open, collaborative solutions like wikis, blogs and social networks to address such problems as cybersecurity and privacy.

"Our fortuitous starting point is a generative device on a neutral 'Net in tens of millions of hands. To maintain it, the users of those devices must experience the 'Net as something with which they identify and belong,'' he concludes. "We must use the generativity of the 'Net to engage a constituency that will protect and nurture it. That constituency must be drawn from the ranks of a new generation able to see that technology is not simply a video game designed by someone else, and that content is not simply what is provided through a TiVo or iPhone.''

Zittrain's book is interesting, but it isn't an easy read. He has an academic writing style that forces the reader to re-read some paragraphs before the meaning is clear. Although reading it requires some persistence, the book poses some thought-provoking ideas about the trade-off between convenience and innovation on the Internet.

IT professionals will like this book because it's brimming with gratitude for geeks, hobbyists and other tinkerers who know how to leverage the openness and flexibility of PCs and the Internet. And it's a call to arms to these folks not to succumb to the ease of iPhones, Blackberries and Google Apps.

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Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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